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Wenger’s Mysteries

Today’s post is by Zim-Paul – A regular here in the comments section at Positively Arsenal. 

Some decent Arsenal-aligned folks out there have been kicking about two extraordinary claims that stick in my mind, because at first glance they appear almost reasoned, on superficial, selective evidence.

The first is that Wenger has been acting without much strategic plan, “by the seat of his pants” was a term that captured this, not so much ‘unguided missile’ as ‘on the back-foot’, reactive to events of the summers of 2011 and 2012, tossed about I suppose by some unseasonable weather.

The second underpins the first, that Wenger’s transfers, in and out, over an extended period post-2006, have been less coherent than assumed, incurring disturbing lossesand destabilising team-building, and his own laudable efforts. The idea is that constant tinkering undermined the essence of Wengerball, contrasting sharply with a recipe for success at Manchester United, a stable player foundation; and that ultimately key players saw through it, and left for better options despite their years of loyalty and toil in a forlorn effort.

Well, I never. I hope I’ve described the twin arguments with fairness; do tell if I have not since it is not my wish to exaggerate or distort their intent.

These are two of the most damaging allegations against Arsenal in a decade, including those of the anti-support, the combined efforts of the village idiot trust, precisely because they sound a bit well-dressed, respectable and tidy, backed by ‘data’ in one case. They allow those embracing such ideas to speak the telltale words “I have always supported Wenger but …. I was as shocked as you when I found out, you know, the damning evidence of mismanagement”. The intelligence and corporate worlds refer to this as “plausible deniability”.

On the other hand, being an Arsenal-positive kind of bloke, I saw opportunity, not threat, to debunk such fiction. I am not going to talk about the financial limitations 2006-2011 and the restrictions these placed on the types and calibre of Arsenal players. I am not even going to talk about how many players ended up in just one other club, Manchester City, spirited away by big money, the major destabilising factor at Arsenal by a distance (an outcome ironically of Wenger’s incredible record in identifying technical players).

I am trying to imagine the soap-opera script telling the story of an economist who orchestrated the strategy of moving stadium, unparalleled in modern football management, a plan that by definition must envisage 10-25 year financial projections interwoven with narrative arguments exhaustively justifying the strategy, becoming the same chap who, it seems incredible, abandoned planning, alongside intensive research and stats, as a prime instrument of football management and now “flies by the seat of his pants”. Such genius strikes me as too far-fetched for Mr. Wenger.  How on earth did he manage this feat of duplicity? How did he fool us?

The second argument concludes that, by the evidence, Wenger never had a fully conceived football plan in the first place, post-Invincibles, that his tinkering and change of course and composition exposed the paucity and critical weaknesses of any plan he might have had scribbled down. The evidence is presented primarily in the outcome, that as we know is no trophies for 7 seasons.

The logic, pursued by an array of tinkers, sorry “thinkers”, is further presented as that the Invincibles period was built on the rock-solid foundations of the best defence in England, one Wenger inherited. Ergo, he didn’t conjure up the Invincibles either, not really, not as we thought, not quite. Is it all that surprising then, so it goes, that when daybreak came and the inheritance faded, he failed, damningly, on the back of a consistently ‘dodgy defence’. Neat hey? As far as character assassination goes, it has purpose.

The evidence is further based on a hotch-potch of alleged figures and flimsy anecdotal references alluding to and describing a pattern of ‘incomprehensible’ transfer decisions, and mistakes: you know the drill I’m sure, Cole, Pires, Gilberto, Flamini, Hleb, Diarra, Reyes, Adebayor, and a phalanx of hopelessly fat, lazy and geriatric defenders, Gallas,Eboue and so on (sorry, I’m bored already) through to the “inevitable” fall-out culminating in the summer of 2011.

I have an alternative theory. Wenger is fallible, in a strictly football sense, in that his football philosophy places tremendous trust and responsibility in his players. His post-2006 formations came close, damn close, twice if we examine the truth of it, but (injuries aside) had a human flaw despite meticulous planning and fine-tuning. The central premise rested on his ability, as coach, motivator and tactician, to coax, from four or five key players and a supporting cast, a degree of self-belief that they did not, and possibly could not, possess.

He had the best (young) central midfielder in the world, not fully matured, but acknowledged; what he thought was one of the best strikers in Europe (post-injury, proved correct); one of the best left-backs in England (a key position in modern football); and, in time, he had a twin compliment to these in two French internationals: Nasri, seemingly destined for greatness with his deftness of touch, and Diaby, despite injury, showing ability to dominate with an awkward gait, stance and movement on the ball. His teams were decidedly continental, technical and rested (they still do) on dominating the opposition. It has been said that training rarely includes tactical counter-moves to negate opposition strengths or advantages to be obtained from their weaknesses. Yes, I can believe that. Wenger only knows one strategy, to overwhelm, from passing, possession and technical mastery; to emphasize your own team’s creative ability.

He believed in his players, the core had joined young and were nurtured by him from early twenties or younger, and believing in them, he must have believed in his ability to impart self-belief to this core, more than anything that with hard work and freedom to express themselves they would reach their highest creative potential. Yes, I would think Wenger tried every conceivable combination to unlocking these players’ potential, as a team. He spoke passionately about these players, and they about him.

Wenger’s second Arsenal vintage was all but disbanded with the departure of Fabregas, and a summer later, van Persie, combining to make these the most poignant moments in the history of Arsenal in 17 years, and probably much longer. Nine other players left or were required to leave over two summers. Change was resolutely underway. Fans were shocked. Wenger acted decisively, even ruthlessly.

What belies the idea that Wenger did not have a plan underlying a plan was the speed in the re-building, and the actions we now know that could not possibly be ‘purely’ reactive: the clear-out itself, building a young British core, identifying Giroud and Podolski in advance of van Persie’s departure (and what players they turn out to be) andcontinuously strengthening defence with Per, Jenks, Santos, Miguel’s promotion, young Bellerin, now Nacho. The midfield having lost its (then) pivotal players, barely broke its stride, and that’s worth dwelling on as a feat of football engineering. There are a couple that do strike me as speculative, Park and Benayoun on loan, maybe Santos, but overwhelmingly not, nor was there any sense of panic or over-reaction (what the media drooled for) in recent transfer windows. It has been composed. The steady incorporation also of younger players has continued without so much as blinking.

I cannot think of a comparison in recent football history in the scope and speed of successfully transitioning one team into another. Manchester City bought their way with mind-numbing expenses through a transition, and it took longer. Can it be accidental that in the first season of a new-look, transitional side (last season), having lost someimmense talents, an unsettled team attained a higher placing. Was it luck? Many ascribe this to van Persie’s skills, to Benayoun’s or Rosicky’s late-season surge, or Chelsea’s ‘collapse’, but this season the team is out-scoring last season, over-reliance on one striker is thrillingly overcome, we have a lethal trident-attack, centred on a gem named Giroud, the midfield is purring with options and I think we will overhaul Chelsea, again. Somebody is doing something right.

“Planning” (in the sense I mean) is under-pinned by a philosophy, a coherent set of ideas, an identity. Wenger’s overwhelming contribution to Arsenal, his principle legacy will not only be bricks and mortar, but a vision of why football should be played and watched, and how to get it there. I doubt this has changed much, if at all over the years. The least ambitious ideas need the least gestation (for example, Manchester City’s contribution to the game); in Wenger’s case the converse is true. I look forward to the definitive book. When coherence of ideas is principled and tested, planning becomes embedded, continuous and elastic and allows for rapid action when required, because circumstances can and do change; this alone can explain how Wenger has achieved this transition.

Those howling in the wind for “change” are already over one year late, almost two as we speak. By this time last year, a full-blown transition was underway, and it shows every sign of being thought out, articulate and part of something bigger. That Fabregas and van Persie were plausible components of ‘a plan’ (elastic enough to include some probability of their departures) does not change direction and strategy. I was intrigued reading this Wengerism “don’t rule out the possibility that Fabregas will one day return to Arsenal”.

I am confident and delighted that Wenger seems not to have altered his intuitive trust in players, as people, and as a team. What proved fallible or premature with one core of players can and will excel with another; that is a question of character, work ethic and stressing such values as loyalty, teamwork and vision, as much as skill and technical ability. I cannot speak for players who departed. It hurt. Yes, they were young and so much was expected of them at the time. We suffered horrendously from injury “plague” season after season (lest we forget, van Persie, Diaby, Ramsey, Eduardo, Wilshere, Denilson, Walcott, Gibbs, Fabregas, Rosicky and Gallas all suffered extensive lay-offs through injury at critical periods). But Father time, as always, will tell us the big truth much more simply.

In the meantime, Wenger’s method has given everything I wanted from football, the opportunity for players as a team to express themselves creatively, and so, memories of the best football I have seen, certainly in England, and this has never changed in Wenger’s period. The consistency of this standard of football should tell us something about the philosophy behind. I have noted key tactical changes in the latest Wenger team, nuances, but I suspect these are built around the player’s attributes as much as tactical innovation, a combination. Is it my imagination, or has Theo Walcott just grown up, boy-to-man, at Arsenal? I could mention others, Jack and Chewie’s maturity, the story of Diaby, of Aaron, or my favourite, Rosicky. Wenger is a people-trusting person. That’s my kind of football manager.

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52 comments on “Wenger’s Mysteries

  1. Agree with Passenal and Paul-N. AW would be crazy to make any accusations based on suspicion. We the supporters are free to make our own observations.

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  2. Excellent post Mr ZimPaul. I really do enjoy coming on this site and learning from the articles and comments. Top quality!

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